James S. Robbins
Pursuing equity for historically disadvantaged groups should not come at the cost of denying others the right to achieve. Yet in practice the drive for equity is having a leveling effect – not just giving everyone an equal chance but punishing those who excel. This sends a bad message, especially for the potential high achievers in the most disadvantaged groups.
Take the reaction to the results of New York City’s Specialized High School Admissions Test. Asian students dominated, taking over half the coveted specialized high school seats, despite being about 16% of the student population. Black teenagers, who make up over a quarter of students, passed in the low single digits.
School Chancellor Meisha Ross Porter called the test results “unacceptable,” and Mayor Bill de Blasio has said that such tests reflect “this old system that has perpetuated massive segregation.”
Promoting equity by leveling
A previous generation would have encouraged kids of all backgrounds to copy what the Asian kids are doing to achieve high scores, presumably studying. But rather than inspire students to make the commitment to do better, Ross Porter wants to do away with the test and “find a more equitable way forward.”
The chancellor’s uncomfortable implication seems to be that Black kids simply cannot do what Asian kids can do. This is false; even in the racially troubled 1930s, Black enrollment in New York specialized schools tracked with the proportion of African American students in the city.
Virginia is one step ahead of New York in promoting equity by leveling. Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology in Fairfax County, routinely rated as the top high school in the United States, recently eliminated its rigorous admissions test.
Again, the equity issue was too many Asian students (70%) and not enough Black teens (only six admitted in the previous cycle for 550 seats). Under the new system, eighth grade students will have to meet a 3.5 GPA requirement and take various honors courses to qualify to compete for the open slots. In place of the test, they will complete a more subjective math or science “problem-solving essay” and submit a “Student Portrait Sheet” to allow balancing “experience factors” such as income, special needs and language. There will also be a “geographical diversity” quota to represent all Fairfax middle schools, which in essence is a racial quota.
Harry Jackson, father of one of the Black kids admitted last year, has joined a lawsuit opposing the new admissions system.
“As an African American father of a TJ student, I would also like to see more Black and Hispanic students at the school,” he wrote in The Washington Post. “But if those students are not making the grade, the problem isn’t the standards. It’s more likely that the elementary school pipeline is failing to prepare them for the rigors of an environment like TJ.” Jackson said the message being sent was that the Asian students were the “wrong kind” of racial minority.
Corporations and politics:Corporations aren’t ‘woke,’ they just know their customers. Watch and learn, Republicans.
Math has come under particular scrutiny by equity proponents. Last month, the Virginia Department of Education came under fire for materials posted by the Virginia Mathematics Pathway Initiative (VMPI), which suggested a program that would eliminate accelerated math before 11th grade and lump students of all abilities together in “math concepts” classes.
Public outcry forced the Department of Education to walk back the reform proposals, and the VMPI website demoted improving “equity in mathematics learning opportunities” from its No. 1 goal to No. 4. But the underlying focus on creating homogeneous math classes and “detracking” gifted students reflects the equity approach of not only lowering standards but closing pathways to achievement by others.
Damaging our education
The intellectual nadir of the attack on achievement is the emergence of “ethnomathematics,” which seeks to “dismantle racism” by promoting notions such as math not being objective and deemphasizing the focus on getting the “right answer.” The Oregon Department of Education promoted a professional development course on Equitable Math Instruction, and the California draft Mathematics Framework document promotes these concepts.
This strain of thought would have the practical effect of giving those students who struggle with math a moral justification for not getting any better and notifying those who are gifted that there is probably something wrong with them. If this framework spreads, it could condemn a generation of children to irrelevance in science, technology, engineering and math fields, where the right answer is not a matter of opinion.
Contrast the ethnomathematics message with the inspirational subject of the movie “Hidden Figures.” That film lauded the contributions of three African American women working for NASA in the early 1960s, using their superior math skills to support America in the Cold War space race while overcoming segregation-era institutional racism. This is the type of uplifting math story that kids of color need to hear, not divisive nonsense about how having to “show your work” is inherently racist.
The Backstory:“What exactly is the role of the federal government in Americans’ lives?”
Education is not a zero-sum game. The fact that some kids get ahead through discipline and hard work does not deny that opportunity to others who face the same choices. But taking opportunities from kids because they are too successful is a backward approach that will erode America’s competitive advantage in global science and technology.
James S. Robbins, a member of USA TODAY’s Board of Contributors and author of “This Time We Win: Revisiting the Tet Offensive,” has taught at the National Defense University and the Marine Corps University and served as a special assistant in the office of the secretary of Defense in the George W. Bush administration. He is a senior fellow in National Security Affairs at the American Foreign Policy Council. Follow him on Twitter: @James_Robbins